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Superego Hits the Roof: How We Got Cool

Cool roofs don't have to be green.  Julie Ardery's new roof came in silver -- Silver Birch.  Julie notes that "Silver Sycamore" might be a more appropriate color for her region of Texas.  All images courtesy of Julie Ardery.

July was rainy this year – a miracle in Central Texas. But gratitude soured when we noticed a discolored spot on the bedroom ceiling. It was right below where, eleven years ago, we’d had a fellow named Ken make a funky notch in the roof line – rather than chop off a huge live oak limb that overhangs the house.

The house is old. The roof looked old when we moved in, October 1999. The little ringworm spot on the ceiling was looking monumental.

A roofer checked things out,descending the ladder with an air of finality. We needed a new roof. After getting his five-figure bid, we got a second opinion. (Or couldn’t we just wish it all away?) Our second man concurred, and was willing to take on the job for a little bit less.

Plus, he informed us about a new kind of shingle that qualifies for a federal rebate. This would be an energy-saving “cool roof,” (nobody pays attention to anything in this town unless it’s “cool”). Like all arid Austin, we were interested in a metal roof and rainwater collection, but metal’s really expensive, as in really MORE expensive than what we would be shelling out anyway.

Until recently, only certain metal roofs and specially solar-treated (as in “pricey”) shingles had qualified for the rebate, but this rooferhad learned about a conventional asphalt shingle that the feds would allow, rebating 30% of the cost of materials, up to $1500.

The one available in our region was Certainteed’s “Silver Birch,” its light color being much more reflective than the very standard gray-brown we had. Turns out the color of our old roof was “Weathered Wood” – and how it popped our pride to hear the salesman at the local roofing warehouse say, “Yeah, that’s what all the new builders in town always use.”

A dark but muted shade, compatible with our cream-colored house, mauvy trim, and, most importantly, the live oak trunks and limbs (thus the name), “Weathered Wood” just seemed right. In fact, we discovered that we were strangely wedded to ”Weathered Wood” -- as, it turns out, most everybody else seems to be.

We asked our roof man Thomas, aka “TAG,” if a lot of people had availed themselves of a “cool” roof and the rebate. “Not really,” he said. Even his own dad recently had a new roof put on and insisted on a dark one, though they absorb lots more heat and so ratchet up summer utility bills.Like the widows of Crete, most of us, when it comes to our roofs, have a deep-seated commitment to dark colors, even in a blazing hot climate. Dark roofs look, just…well, like roofs should look!

A Berkeley research group found that “switching to a white roof can actually reduce energy use by about 20 percent in hot, sunny weather.” (We get a lot of that around here.)

But what about in colder darker places, where winter heating bills are the killers, not summer air-conditioning? Wouldn’t you Yankees want a nice sun absorbing “Weathered Wood” roof? No, according to this same research outfit. Even up north, “The amount of heat savings you may lose in the winter would be, at the maximum, 30 percent of the summertime savings.”

U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu has been beating the drum for white roofs for awhile now. And his “hero” Art Rosenfeld of the California Energy Commission has been “campaigning for cool roofs since the 1980s,” according to a story in the New York Times. Rosenfeld contends that “turning all of the world’s roofs ‘light’ over the next 20 years could save the equivalent of 24 billion metric tons in carbon dioxide emissions. “‘That is what the whole world emitted last year,” Mr. Rosenfeld said. ‘So, in a sense, it’s like turning off the world for a year.’”

But Mr. Rosenfeld, you don’t understand – for some primal reason, most of us want dark roofs. Roofs just “ought to be” dark gray, brown, or black. For the same reason most people don’t want green hair or black bathtubs, white roofs just seem, well, wrong!

We were all ready to forego the energy savings and the rebate until stricken by something more powerful than aesthetics -- peer pressure. Our dear and exemplary neighbor Wendy Todd, rainwater collector, xeriscape planter, park cleaner-upper, and solar panelist, heard we were reroofing and ambivalent about becoming “cool.” She didn’t badger us, just highly recommend that we set an example (it’s a bird, it’s a plane…uh-oh, it’s superego). “And anyway,” she said looking up at the shingle sample we laid under the dormer, “it’ll just disappear.”

Silver Birch it would be.

Candido Martinez, a member of Josue Perez's roofing crew

Last Friday, Josue Perez and his crew arrived early and worked through the 100-degree heat until sundown, accomplishing the impossible. They pulled off three layers of shingles,much of it on a very steep surface, plus the original wooden shakes (also known as firestarter), and put on the new grey-silver topper.

Roof installation in progress
We work everyday upstairs in this old house, in what used to be the attic; on summer afternoons it can get intolerable up here, even with ceiling fans whirring, but no longer. We wish we’d had the good sense and mental discipline actually to have taken temperature readings up here before and after installation of the lighter roof. Lacking that, please trust us. It feels much cooler, and we hope next month to have lower electricity bills to confirm that it is.

And except for the dormer that needs repainting, it looks good too. It turns out we weren’t so much married to “Weathered Wood,” as habituated to it. We like the new roof fine and so do others. Squinting up at the roof line Monday, TAG told us he’s already picked up two more jobs in the neighborhood. He pointed upward: “And they both want that.”

(For rules and more details on the federal Energy Star rebate program, check here. The roof rebate runs through Dec. 31, 2010.)

For more on this topic, read MSN's recent 'Cool' roofs - a hot idea article.

Julie Ardery directs the Human Flower Project and co-edits the Daily Yonder, both under a cool roof in Austin, Texas. 


Carter said…
Great post! Thank you.
Georgia said…
Carter, glad you enjoyed the post. We have Julie Ardery of to thank for this great essay.
Rodney Orton said…
Hi. You got a really nice blog. I viewed some of your posts, and I absolutely think the "Lifes of Grass by Mathilde Roussel Giraudy" is superb. Those grass sculptures fascinate me. Anyway, I enjoyed this post, as my wife and I are doing a house project, and we're now planning to reconstruct the roofing. Lincoln (Nebraska) is rainy today, so we decided to postpone it until this coming weekend. And yes, we're kinda thinking about cool roofs to reduce the demand for energy power.
Georgia said…
Rodney, thank you for reading our blog. Best of luck with your cool roof project. Would you like to share your project with us?
steelystyle said…
Thanks to both of you...I really appreciated being reminded how many of our poor environmental decisions are matters of habit and lemming activity. Sometimes the simplest answers can make such a big difference! No new (possibly pricey) technology, just a new color. I love it.